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Gang Membership
By Quinton Olding
Published: 03/28/2011

Gang members 1 A major component of security in any correctional facility is the ability to identify and manage gang members. Security threat group (STG) investigators and security staff are on a constant battle with identifying and profiling new gang members while at the same time monitoring the coordinated efforts of established gang leaders as they spin a web of illegal activities. Throughout the years departments of corrections nationwide have attempted to single out a sound system of STG management that works for their facility. One thing is for certain there is no cure all method to cover every situation.

Gang membership has been on the rise throughout the past decades to the point of estimation of approximately 1 million gang members belonging to more than 20,000 gangs were criminally active within all 50 states and the District of Columbia as of September 2008 (The National Gang Threat Assessment 2009) .Of that, 200,000 members in U.S. prisons as of 2008 (West & Sabol). Prison gangs are serious threat to society overall as gang members develop their network within the prison system then upon release continue to operate in their communities. Released members typically return to their home communities and resume their former street gang affiliations, acting as representatives of their prison gang to recruit street gang members who perform criminal acts on behalf of the prison gang (The National Gang Threat Assessment 2009).

This has lead corrections officials to organize ways to profiling gang members. However, the underlying need is never really fully understood and researchers need to identify the pushes (e.g., a need for protection and marginalization) and pulls (e.g., excitement and increased social status) that propel an individual into joining a STG (McGloin, 2007). Once researchers can establish these variables that influence the need for gangs, a formidable management tool could efficiently be put in place to prevent gang associations altogether.

With the pushes and pulls variables being established researchers still have to develop a theoretical compound to show the underlying conditions that are the foundations to the cause of this effect. Social factors play an overriding feature in these theories. This concept is what would be a form of tribalism in which the child takes on the traits of the family/community dynamic and proceed through life maintaining this mindset until either maturity or an outside source rededicates the goals of the person in question. An excellent example of this is when a child is raised in a home that is exclusive to one religion. Then as the child matures into adulthood the realization of differing religions and philosophies of this world encourages a change or conversion to other belief systems. This could be done through a simple encourager like a course in school or a brute force recruitment effort by an outsider.

In this scenario it is clear that with today’s societal norms being in constant conflict with the new age understanding of the effects of crime on a family unit that criminal justice professionals are now seeing a recurring trend in which not only are one or two family members in a gang but the entire family unit themselves. This trend is mirrored in the prison system as it is not uncommon to find father-sons, brothers, cousins or even all incarcerated at a the same time.

In recent years, the street code of “snitches end up in ditches” has been on the rise amongst neighborhoods causing the gang lifestyle to accelerate further. The whole ideology of prison culture has shifted from one of fear to a situation in which the youth of the gang nations view incarceration as a rite of passage. With this rite of passage and the ever increasing amount of gang members being incarcerated it has become problematic for correctional facilities to establish a definite was of managing these individuals.

However, corrections investigators and managers have developed two distinct ways of STG management via what is available in the institutional design. This is where the rehabilitation model comes into play for the gang mentality. Based on what management model the department takes is what direction of change is made in the individual themselves. Through these two models there has been created a viable tool to lesson the recruiting factor within the institutions that they were designed.

The first is the segregation model. With this model the department has decided that a lone facility or part of a facility will be the key residential area for a particular gang affiliation thus creating a physical boundary between gang members and the rest of the general population. This limits the gang’s ability to recruit more members into their organizations thus reducing the population, in theory. However, the gang still thrives in this arena as this maintains the gang’s numbers in an isolated area and gives the gang leadership direct access to their subordinates. Gang leaders can further emphasize their membership to maintain their gang status and continue making propaganda for their members. Thus causing the ability to leave the gang a serious threat to the individual as any move to leave the gang will not go unnoticed.

The second model is the distribution model. In this model correctional managers organize methods to spread the gang membership to various parts of the institution thus depleting the gang’s leadership of the numbers it needs in one particular living area. Placing members with non-members that are considered model inmates or using simple integration methods give the gang member the chance to lower their defenses and open up for other methods of thought. This produces the needed time for a gang member who has inclinations of leaving the lifestyle the chance for change. By limiting the access to other members or gang leaders the individual gang member will have a chance to see the benefits of not being disruptive or under the abusive power of gang leadership. This also allows the eventual recant of a gang member and offering them a chance to avoid retaliation by other gang members.

The downside to this model is the fact that recruitment will be readily available and the distribution of contraband throughout the institution is easier. This is countered by the prudent work of corrections officers and investigators as they track the gang members and their associations moving throughout the institution. This could very well back fire though as not every offender can be watched and the con is the trick of the trade with gang members.

As societies norms change with the ethical and moral standards with norms adjust for better or worse the problems that impede on progress will always remain. No matter the understanding of what theory applies to why an individual would join a gang let alone commit a crime the overriding factor will always lay within that individuals psyche. Crime is not a new profession; however, how society punishes those that commit crimes will be ever evolving and will always remain one step behind.

Corrections.com author Quinton Olding holds a Bachelors in Criminal Justice and has worked in Corrections for over 15 years with specializations in gang investigations, C.E.R.T., defensive tactics, cell extractions and crisis negotiations.


Gatti, E., Tremblay, R. E., Vitaro, F., & McDuff, P. (2005). Youth gangs, delinquency and drug use: a test of the selection, facilitation, and enhancement hypotheses. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 1178–1190.

Gordon, R. A., Lahey, B. B., Kawai, E., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., & Farrington, D. P. (2004). Antisocial behavior and youth gang membership: Selection and socialization. Criminology, 42, 55–87.

McGloin, J. M. (2007). The continued relevance of gang membership. Criminology & Public Policy, 2, 231−240.

The National Gang Threat Assessment 2009. (2009). Retrieved March 1, 2011, from National Gang Intelligence Center: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/national-gang-threat-assessment-2009-pdf

West, H. C., & Sabol, W. J. (2009). Prison inmates at midyear 2008. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Wilkinson, R. A., & Delgado, A. (2006, April). Prison gang and drug investigations: An Ohio approach. Corrections Today, 36−40.


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